Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry is credited for ushering in the 3-point revolution in the NBA. Most players would agree, except icon Larry Bird. From his perspective, former New York Knicks head coach Rick Pitino unveiled the 3-point shot’s searing potential.
Seeds of the scheme
The seeds of his then-radical idea came during his stint as a head coach with the NCAA’s Providence Friars. The basketball program needed a massive facelift, having finished last place in the 1984-95 season, the year before Pitino took charge. Pitino said he needed a revolutionary playbook to turn things around. The idea of jacking up more 3-point shots than usual entered his mind.
"I came in, obviously, without hope or talent. I needed an offensive gimmick to turn this thing around,” Pitino said, per ESPN.
"When the 3-point shot came in, I decide that I was going to tell my team we were going to lead the nation in 3-point shooting," Pitino says. "We were going to take 15 3-pointers a game, and we were going to lead the nation."
15 3-pointers per game was a very conservative forecast. According to one of his players Billy Donovan, now coach of the Chicago Bulls, Pitino told them to toss up 35 3-pointers a game.
"I think he actually told us to shoot 35 a game," says Donovan. "That was totally against conventional wisdom. Coaches were really opposed to the rule and opposed to adjusting their offense to the 3-point line. You had guys who were coaching 25 and 30 years who were used to a certain way, and they had to reevaluate things philosophically."
Pitino’s bold experiment worked. The Friars recorded a 25-9 record. They also reached the Final Four as the sixth seed. And of course, they led the nation in 3-pointers with 280 on 19.6 per game.
The bigger stage
The NBA, particularly the New York Knicks, took notice of Pitino’s success. They hired him as head coach for the 1987-88 NBA season. Like the Friars, the Knicks needed a significant facelift as they recorded a 24-58 the previous season.
In Pitino’s first season with the Knicks, he guided them to the playoffs with a 38-44 record. The following year, the Patrick Ewing-led squad locked a 52-30 record for 2nd in the East. Along the way, they snagged the NBA 3-point record with 1,147 3-pointers by a mile. The previous mark was 705.
"We had it rolling in the Garden," Pitino says. "It was at 60 percent capacity before I got there, and then suddenly it was full. I remember we made every bonus clause based on attendance and wins."
Pitino was the hottest coach at that moment in time. They even called the 3-point shot ‘Pitino Bombinos’ in honor of the coach’s wild offensive playbook. In the playoffs, they booted out Charles Barkley’s Philadelphia 76ers in three games. But in the second round, they ran into the Chicago Bulls' mighty wall helmed by Michael Jordan. Their 3-point barrage was nothing against Jordan’s dominance. The Knicks got ousted in six games.
"I always say this ... if we would have had the seventh game coming back home, I really believe we would have won a championship," Pitino says. "Because we had the Pistons. The Bad Boys could not handle us."
After that fateful season, Pitino suddenly resigned as Knicks' head coach. He returned years later as Boston Celtics head coach. He never did achieve the same success and even had some run-ins with the Boston media. But the deed was done. Pitino had already forged his name in history as the real 3-point instigator years before Stephen Curry.
"In the beginning, everybody thought I was a mad scientist. In the end, everybody realized how potent a weapon it was," Pitino said.